Pilots, Pushbacks, and the Panopticon: Digital Technologies at the EU’s Borders

The European Union is increasingly introducing digital technologies into its border control operations. But conversations about these emerging “digital borders” are often silent about the significant harms experienced by those subjected to these technologies, their experimental nature, and their discriminatory impacts.

On October 27, 2021, we hosted the eighth episode in our Transformer States Series on Digital Government and Human Rights, in an event entitled “Artificial Borders? The Digital and Extraterritorial Protection of ‘Fortress Europe.’” Christiaan van Veen and Ngozi Nwanta interviewed Petra Molnar about the European Union’s introduction of digital technologies into its border control and migration management operations. The video and transcript of the event, along with additional reading materials, can be found below. This blog post outlines key themes from the conversation.

Digital technologies are increasingly central to the EU’s efforts to curb migration and “secure” its borders. Against a background of growing violent pushbacks, surveillance technologies such as unpiloted drones and aerostat machines with thermo-vision sensors are being deployed at the borders. The EU-funded “ROBORDER” project aims to develop “a fully-functional autonomous border surveillance system with unmanned mobile robots.” Refugee camps on the EU’s borders, meanwhile, are being turned into a “surveillance panopticon,” as the adults and children living within them are constantly monitored by cameras, drones, and motion-detection sensors. Technologies also mediate immigration and refugee determination processes, from automated decision-making, to social media screening, and a pilot AI-driven “lie detector.”

In this Transformer States conversation, Petra argued that technologies are enabling a “sharpening” of existing border control policies. As discussed in her excellent report entitled “Technological Testing Grounds,” completed with European Digital Rights and the Refugee Law Lab, new technologies are not only being used at the EU’s borders, but also to surveil and control communities on the move before they reach European territory. The EU has long practiced “border externalization,” where it shifts its border control operations ever-further away from its physical territory, partly through contracting non-Member States to try to prevent migration. New technologies are increasingly instrumental in these aims. The EU is funding African states’ construction of biometric ID systems for migration control purposes; it is providing cameras and surveillance software to third countries to prevent travel towards Europe; and it supports efforts to predict migration flows through big data-driven modeling. Further, borders are increasingly “located” on our smartphones and in enormous databases as data-based risk profiles and pre-screening become a central part of the EU’s border control agenda.

Ignoring human experience and impacts

But all too often, discussions about these technologies are sanitized and depoliticized. People on the move are viewed as a security problem, and policymakers, consultancies, and the private sector focus on the “opportunities” presented by technologies in securitizing borders and “preventing migration.” The human stories of those who are subjected to these new technological tools and the discriminatory and deadly realities of “digital borders” are ignored within these technocratic discussions. Some EU policy documents describe the “European Border Surveillance System” without mentioning people at all.

In this interview, Petra emphasized these silences. She noted that “human experience has been left to the wayside.” First-person accounts of the harmful impacts of these technologies are not deemed to be “expert knowledge” by policymakers in Brussels, but it is vital to expose the human realities and counter the sanitized policy discussions. Those who are subjected to constant surveillance and tracking are dehumanized: Petra reports that some are left feeling “like a piece of meat without a life, just fingerprints and eye scans.” People are being forced to take ever-deadlier routes to avoid high-tech surveillance infrastructures, and technology-enabled interdictions and pushbacks are leading to deaths. Further, difference in treatment is baked into these technological systems, as they enable and exacerbate discriminatory inferences along racialized lines. As UN Special Rapporteur on Racism E. Tendayi Achiume writes, “digital border technologies are reinforcing parallel border regimes that segregate the mobility and migration of different groups” and are being deployed in racially discriminatory ways. Indeed, some algorithmic “risk assessments” of migrants have been argued to represent racial profiling.

Policy discussions about “digital borders” also do not acknowledge that, while the EU spends vast sums on technologies, the refugee camps at its borders have neither running water nor sufficient food. Enormous investment in digital migration management infrastructures is being “prioritized over human rights.” As one man commented, “now we have flying computers instead of more asylum.”

Technological experimentation and pilot programs in “gray zones”

Crucially, these developments are occurring within largely-unregulated spaces. A central theme of this Transformer States conversation—mirroring the title of Petra’s report, “Technological Testing Grounds”—was the notion of experimentation within the “gray zones” of border control and migration management. Not only are non-citizens and stateless persons accorded fewer rights and protections than EU citizens, but immigration and asylum decision-making is also an area of law which is highly discretionary and contains fewer legal safeguards.

This low-rights, high-discretion environment makes it rife for testing new technologies. This is especially the case in “external” spaces far from European territory which are subject to even less regulation. Projects which would not be allowed in other spaces are being tested on populations who are literally at the margins, as refugee camps become testing zones. The abovementioned “lie detector,” whereby an “avatar” border guard flagged “biomarkers of deceit,” was “merely” a pilot program. This has since been fiercely criticized, including by the European Parliament, and challenged in court.

Experimentation is deliberately occurring in these zones as refugees and migrants have limited opportunities to challenge this experimentation. The UN Special Rapporteur on Racism has noted that digital technologies in this area are therefore “uniquely experimental.” This has parallels with our work, where we consistently see governments and international organizations piloting new technologies on marginalized and low-income communities. In a previous Transformer States conversation, we discussed Australia’s Cashless Debit Card system, in which technologies were deployed upon aboriginal people through a pilot program. In the UK, radical reform to the welfare system through digitalization was also piloted, with low-income groups being tested on with “catastrophic” effects.

Where these developments are occurring within largely-unregulated areas, human rights norms and institutions may prove useful. As Petra noted, the human rights framework requires courts and policymakers to focus upon the human impacts of these digital border technologies, and highlights the discriminatory lines along which their effects are felt. The UN Special Rapporteur on Racism has outlined how human rights norms require mandatory impact assessments, moratoria on surveillance technologies, and strong regulation to prevent discrimination and harm.

November 23, 2021. Victoria Adelmant,Director of the Digital Welfare State & Human Rights Project at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law.